CAIRO: In what could go down in history as one of the most unorthodox moves in sport, footballer Kashif Siddiqi last year moved from England’s Oxford United club to South Asia to play for Real Kashmir on a one-year loan.
But Siddiqi is no average sportsman. The 33-year-old has dedicated much of his career to using football as way to create peace and encourage dialogue across the world.
In 2013 he co-founded Football for Peace (FfP) with former Chile international Elias Figeroa. The organization runs programs worldwide that use the game to address social issues.
Siddiqi says his loan to Kashmir — territory disputed by India and Pakistan — is “proof” of his commitment to the wider importance of the game.
“Real Kashmir probably has the biggest profile in India as a club,” he said. “They’ve grown really fast. I think going to Kashmir makes a really big statement and brings real visibility to football diplomacy.”
Siddiqi’s ultimate dream — after playing for Real Kashmir — is to set up the Cities for Peace program across the Middle East.
“Football is loved by kids in the Middle East. We’d like to bring Arab children together from all over the place … and unite them in a love of the game. It’s a step toward transforming preconceptions of each other,” he said.
“By nominating Cities for Peace across the region, we could conduct cultural exchange programs. That makes for a really strong dialogue, and that’s how to bring about change.”
Siddiqi began his job as a diplomatic ambassador by even setting foot in divided Kashmir. Despite being partly of Indian origin, he has also represented Pakistan at international level.
Sandeep Chattoo, co-founder of Real Kashmir, told UK newspaper The Guardian that the decision to sign Siddiqi was taken for more than just football reasons.
Chattoo said: “Kashif is a unique player who’ll fit right in, and we hope his Football for Peace efforts will align with our mission and continue to bring hope and joy to the region.”
Siddiqi says his mixed family background has inspired his philanthropic approach to football. His father hailed from India, and his mother came to the UK as a refugee fleeing war-torn Uganda in the Idi Amin era.
“My mother’s background is the whole reason why I founded the FfP movement,” he said. “She has been the driving force for me both on and off the pitch.”
Siddiqi describes FfP as a “diplomatic sports movement that brings people together and creates understanding through the beautiful game.”
The organization conducts one-off football matches held around the world to raise awareness of football diplomacy and promote a message of equality and peace.
The body also runs Young Ambassador Training, a local community initiative that uses football to connect young people from different faiths, cultures and backgrounds, and get them to play together and better understand one another.
Siddiqi says his vision is that every country in the world uses football diplomacy to help bring about peace and more tolerant societies.
“Growing up as a footballer, I was color-blind. It didn’t matter where my fellow players were from — we were friends on the pitch and just passed the ball,” he said.
“That way, as players grow up, no matter what we do in our lives, we’re always connected. We want these children to be connected from a young age so they form those tolerant relationships.”
This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.